The Beat of Summer

Black-headed Grosbeak (male)

Although today is officially the first day of summer, this whole month leading up to it has been a wild, thriving bonanza in Northern California. By 5:30 dawn is underway and the cacophony of birdsong has already begun.

 

Slightly inland, temperatures usually range in the Fahrenheit 90s  (32-37 C.), with an occasional day of cooling, coastal fog.

 

The hot temperatures and dry chaparral habitat bring out the Western fence lizards, skinks, and snakes. This year we have had the pleasure of many lizards and skinks.

 

Skink, California

 

One day a confused lizard somehow got into the house. I came in and found it trying to climb our living room steps; fortunately the carpet was impeding progress. I coaxed the lizard, an alligator lizard, into a clean milk bottle and delivered him back outdoors.

 

Northern Alligator Lizard, California

 

The birds take advantage of these long days. Many species have chicks in the nest, and industriously use the maximum daylight hours to snap up insects and worms for their nestlings.

 

Some birds are finishing their nesting like the titmice, violet-green swallows, and western bluebirds. Others, like the Pacific-slope flycatchers, are already feeding a second brood before they head back south.

 

Oak Titmouse, California

 

Violet-green swallow, California

 

Juvenile Anna’s hummingbirds have been off the nest for about a month now, and are easy to spot because they zoom up to everything with defiant purpose, even if it’s inanimate like my cup of tea. Adults don’t waste their energy like that, they have to be alert and vigilant to defend their territory.

 

Anna’s hummingbird (adult male), California. Can you see his tongue?

 

Steller’s jays, a handsome and irreverent bird, also have juveniles right now and not a day goes by without at least one squawk-fest. I watch them. They squawk about nothing. I think they’re learning to voice.

 

Steller’s Jay, adult, California

 

The yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) plants have unfurled thousands of tiny white flowers these past few weeks.  I’ve read that the nectar tastes bitter, but the shrubs are loaded with butterflies, sometimes six or eight at once–all sizes and colors.

 

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Yerba Santa

 

Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), also a native, is more prolific this year than any other year in my 18 here.  Every single plant burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires; but since then we cleaned up the blackened stubs, and after a rain they earnestly began sprouting leaves. With fire-resistant rhizomes, they grew a full grassy bouquet, and recently each plant extended a tall green stem with one club-like flower.

 

Bear Grass, California, June 2019

 

Four species of flycatchers, the blue-gray gnatcatchers and black-throated gray warblers are all here for the summer, calling from the trees reminding me the lively summer has arrived.

 

Residents like the finches, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, vireos and raptors are also busy nesting. Juncos built a nest under our front steps. This week I observed a flicker nesting in a tree snag.

 

But it’s the black-headed grosbeaks who steal the show. Big bird with bold colors, a flash of white in flight; and the most heavenly melodious song reverberating throughout the day.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

 

Pheucticus melanocephalus are here only a short time. The males arrive in April, the females follow, and the spring activities begin. Right now we have immature and adult grosbeaks flying in every direction, sometimes five or six at the feeder at once. By August they’ll be gone.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (female), California

 

We keep the feeders filled with their favorite seed (black oil sunflower); and the water trays are brimming with refreshment for the hot, parched days.

 

So many goals I have, but none so easy to know or do as keeping the grosbeaks happy.

 

At dinnertime the jackrabbit comes in to feed on grass and weeds; and the immature grosbeaks continue their plea that has lasted all day: a wavy whine, feed me, feed me.

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California (Lepus californicus)

 

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (immature), California

 

It’s not until 9:00 that the sun sets and the day quiets down…only for the night creatures to begin their watch. First the bats come out, frenetic silhouettes disappearing into the night. The frogs start their chorus, the crickets their stridulating chirping; and by the time it’s totally dark, the occasional deep hoots of a great horned owl lull me to sleep.

 

The force of life, the beat of summer. Happy summer to my northern hemispheric friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

 

Range Map for Black-headed Grosbeak

Range map for black-headed grosbeak. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

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Two Night Drives

Black and White Owl, Belize

It was the same territory we had traversed every day in this Belizean rainforest, but a very different world opened up once the jungle night unfolded.

 

Night drives involve a vehicle with a strong spotlight hooked up to the battery, and one or two guides who drive and spot. Athena and I stood in the back of a pick-up truck–hanging on, dodging palm fronds, and swatting at mosquitoes.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

Tapirs were a great find, and one of our favorite adventures of the whole trip. More about that: Tapir Time.

 

But we came upon so many other creatures too.

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Owls and bats are a big draw on night drives, and the Belizean forest did not disappoint. I’m always happy to see bats because it means there is a balance in the ecosystem. We saw about 20 individual bats on our two night drives. The lights on the vehicle brought them in, for the insects, then they’d spin away into the black oblivion.

 

We spotted this spectacled owl with a snake. When we drove off, we watched the owl carry the Fer-de-lance snake, highly venemous, back to a palm tree where we suspected there was a nest.

 

Spectacled Owl with Fer-de-lance snake

 

Owls and bats are not the only nocturnal flyers. There were also common pauraques and northern potoos, bird species in the nightjar family (Caprimulgiformes).

 

Pauraques were especially prevalent in this rainforest. When they aren’t flying, they are on the ground, camouflaged in leaf litter; this parent was hiding a little one.

 

Common Parauque adult sitting on top of chick

 

They feed on insects, and were attracted to the constant bug flurry around the lodge’s landscape lights. I heard them every night, so loud that sometimes they woke me up.

 

Sound of pauraque in night forest. 

 

At one point, the driver spotted a wild cat called a margay. We had a two-second look at it before he or she disappeared into the forest. Camouflage spots, quick and stealthy…gone in a flash.

 

Margay. Photo: Brian Gratwicke, courtesy Wikipedia.

They are small, the size of an ocelot, native to Belize, and nocturnal. Their populations are declining, so we were happy to see this rare wild cat.

 

There were large moths and small; beady eyes looking out of the tangled trees; lots of croaking frogs. We came upon a raccoon who was hunting high in a tree; and deer in their nighttime mode, frozen in place by the spotlight. This mammal emerged out of the shadows and it took a few seconds to see it was a tapir.

 

Tapir (center) coming out of the jungle shadows

 

Every day we saw cattle in a pasture on the edge of the forest. At dawn we were there chasing parrots and toucans, while the cattle unabashedly stared at us. When we came back at night, their shining eyes were still staring at us.

 

Cattle in pasture

 

One night we were walking on the lodge grounds when we heard a plop, and found this cane toad, a native.

 

Cane toad, Rhinella marina

 

It’s cooler at night, and the moving vehicle creates a wind that feels luxurious after a long, sweaty day. But the best part of the night drives is seeing this mysterious nocturnal world come alive.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except margay.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

 

San Francisco’s Ferry Building

Ferry Building, San Francisco

Located on the San Francisco Bay waterfront, the Ferry Building is an indoor marketplace with shops and eateries, a busy ferry transit station, and year-round outdoor farmers markets. It is a wonderful place to spend an animated day in San Francisco.

 

Ferry Building Marketplace

 

With status as a San Francisco Landmark and National Historic Place, it has been a transportation terminal hub since it was built in 1898.

 

Ferry Building in left center, Golden Gate Bridge in back right

 

Ferry Building

The Beaux-Arts architecture includes a 245-foot-tall (75 m) clock tower with quarterly Westminster Chimes.

 

The Great Nave, a 660-foot long (200 m) indoor promenade, is brightly lit with skylights and features approximately 50 shops today. Originally it was bustling with freight, baggage, and mail activities.

 

Ferry Building, History

 

Ferry Building, Interior Nave

 

Indoor mosaic tiles throughout the building

From 1898 to the 1930s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. In the 1920s, fifty million passengers a year, and automobiles, used the ferries. When the two big commuter bridges–the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge–were built in the 1930s,  ferry traffic significantly diminished.

 

Nearly a century later, taking ferries to work has come back into vogue, a good way to avoid the auto-clogged roads. It may not be the cheapest means of commuting, but it is the most civilized, and thousands of commuters prefer it.

 

Commuters enjoy a visit with a friend or a good read, a coffee in the morning or beer after work, as they are nautically ushered home after a long day. Rush hour in the Ferry Building hums with commuters.

 

Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck

 

An extensive web of public transportation continues just across the street from the Ferry Building, whisking people further into the city or far away from it.

 

With the water right here, this corner of the city has been a beehive of activity for nearly as long as the city has existed with trains, ships, horses, carriages, and cable cars.

 

Here is an entertaining You Tube video, worth a minute or two of your time. It is original footage of Market Street traffic, including the iconic building always in center view, getting closer. The year is significant: the film was made four days before the 1906 earthquake that would destroy 80% of the city.

 

A Trip Down Market Street – video

 

That year, 1906, was a devastating one for San Francisco, but you can see from the photograph below that the Ferry Building remarkably survived the earthquake.

 

Ferry Building 1906 after Earthquake

 

Over the years, the Ferry Building has undergone many changes and survived another big earthquake in 1989.

 

Some residents objected strongly to the Embarcadero Freeway built beside the Ferry Building in 1968. Then in 1989, the freeway was heavily damaged, and demolished a few years later. (You can still see it in “Dirty Harry” movies.)

 

YMCA next to Embarcadero Freeway 1972 (Telstar Logistics)

Embarcadero Freeway, Ferry Bldg., and Bay Bridge, 1972 (Telstar Logistics)

 

More recently, the Ferry Building was revitalized after an extensive four-year restoration, re-opening in 2003. Since then it has been decorated and celebrated by millions of visitors.

 

Gandhi Statue, Ferry Building, San Francisco

 

Ferry Building, Saturday Farmers Market

 

Graced by surrounding water and squawking gulls, tidal changes and every kind of boat, the Ferry Building continues to host and entertain the patrons and visitors of San Francisco, as it has for over a century.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Super Bowl Fiftieth Anniversary celebration in San Francisco, 2016

Hermann Plaza Winter Ice Rink and Ferry Building

SF Ferry Bldg and Giants Banner, they won the pennant that year, Oct. 2014.

 

Parade of Leafcutter Ants

2013

Leafcutter Ants, Belize

Leafcutter ants are productive farmers with an elaborate society based on ant-fungus mutualism; i.e., a symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus. One day last month I had the joy of watching some especially clever ants taking a shortcut.

 

The ants get safe, underground living accommodations from the fungus, including a means to feed their ant larvae. And in turn, the ants keep the fungus fed and cleaned. Although the ants don’t actually eat from their fungal garden, they chew up the delivered leaves to decompose for the nest.

 

Many colonies contain approximately one million ants, but there can be as many as 8-10 million ants.

 

The ants bite off a piece of leaf and carry it back to the fungal garden, their underground nest. This is what we humans see as each ant carries a leaf chunk down the trail. An underground nest can grow to more than 98 feet (30 m) across, with additional chambers leading off of that.

 

Leafcutter Ant carrying leaf spear

There are many tasks in a community this large, and each individual has a specific role including the queen, several castes of workers, foragers, and soldiers.

 

Next to humans, they have the largest and most complex animal society on earth.

 

Leafcutter Ants Wikipedia

 

I’ve seen leafcutter ants in many tropical venues, and always on a forest trail or in grass. They often have a conspicuous trail, because there are so many ants moving back and forth that eventually they wear down the vegetation, as seen here.

 

Leafcutter Ant trails in grass (bottom right and leading from plant on top left)

 

Lodge Pool, Belize

 

One day Athena and I were swimming at the lodge pool, when we noticed little morsels of leaf parading across the floor tiles. There weren’t that many, maybe one ant every foot (.30 meter) or so. I don’t think other people would have even noticed them, but I am always on the lookout for leafcutters, because I think they are one of the most amazing creatures on earth.

 

The stamina! The industriousness! The tenacity of a leafcutter ant is completely inspiring. Their strength is astounding. They can carry 12-20 times their body weight.

 

After some investigation, we discovered they were taking a rainforest shortcut through the pool area. They entered at one end of the pool enclosure, walked across the pink floor tiles, and exited at the other end. This was about a 50-60 foot long (15-18 m) trail. They traveled along the floor edge, near the plantings, under the lounge chairs.

 

There were places where water was on the floor, which upset the parade. A simple small puddle threw off their scent. Here they circled around for a half minute or so, but would then stabilize, get back on track, and eventually find their way to the exit rock.

Leafcutter Ant disoriented by water spot

Each one took the exact same trail, and they all vanished at the same place. The exit rock is in the center of this photo below–there was a gap between the second and third rocks, about the size of a fist.

Rock exit, between second and third rocks

 

Ant with leaf exiting, in shadow of rock on right

As the plot thickened, we went outside the pool enclosure, thinking there would be a continued trail. But instead they were gone. They had vanished underground, reached their destination. There we stood in our dripping pool clothes, fascinated.

 

It was a very hot, humid day; all the birds were resting, all the humans were resting. But the leafcutter ants, they just kept marching.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Leafcutter Ants, Costa Rica

 

Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.

 

One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.

 

And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.

 

We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.

 

Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico

 

In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.

 

There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.

 

Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.

 

Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.

 

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica

 

This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru

 

One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.

 

We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.

 

Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica

 

In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).

 

We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies

 

Birds that wear party streamers for tails:  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas

 

Tapir Time

Baird’s Tapir, female adult, Belize

Tapirs are large, four-legged mammals found primarily in the jungles of Central and South America. They are rare. How very exciting it was then, to have ten minutes in the wild with this magnificent animal.

 

Adding to the difficulty of finding them, they are nocturnal, and classified as Endangered or Vulnerable. Currently there are five tapir species in the world, with one small population in Southeast Asia and all the rest in the New World. The list of extinct tapir species is far longer than the extant list.

 

Tapir Wikipedia.  Pronounced TAY-peer. We observed the Baird’s Tapir species.

 

Athena and I were on a night drive, standing in the back of a pick-up truck in the jungles of Belize. We had two guides: one was driving, the other was spotting, i.e. shining a strong spotlight on the trees as we drove along.

 

Five minutes after we began, the driver stopped and turned off the truck. None of us spoke. With the aid of the spotlight, we could see branches moving a few feet ahead, and just then a long snout reached out of the thicket.

 

In spite of our excitement we stayed silent, inviting it to come out so we could see it better.

 

Then another snout, this one considerably smaller, peered out from behind the branches; and the mother and juvenile cautiously but steadily walked out of the forest. Their eight hooves clopped as they tentatively walked in front of our truck and crossed the narrow road.

 

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

As they crossed, the adult tapir wiggled her wet nose, sniffing our scent as she determined if she and her youngster were safe.

 

Apparently she knew we were there only to admire, for she led her youth forward and they casually continued to eat the leaves. Baby tapirs are striped and spotted; this juvenile, with no more baby skin, was estimated to be 1.5 years old.

 

Baird’s Tapirs, Belize, juvenile facing camera

 

The largest native herbivore in the New World tropics, tapirs are usually wary of humans, for they have been hunted close to extinction, and their forest habitat continues to disappear. But we were in a preserve where they are surrounded by forest and protected.

 

Here we were all safe in the dark rainforest, with moths and bats and low-hanging palm fronds casting eerie shadows. We were fellow mammals curiously looking at one another.

 

Their long proboscis noses wiggled and sniffed.  On both tapirs the elephantine snout sniffed the leaves and tore them from the branch, shoveling the greenery into the mouth.

 

Baird’s Tapir, adult female, Belize

 

As we continued to watch, I was frequently reminded of other mammals. The elephant came quickly to mind. Tapirs use their prehensile noses for grasping, just like the elephant with its trunk. Their gentle disposition also reminded me of elephants. The clopping sound of their ungulate hooves reminded me of horses.

 

When they walked very close to the back of our vehicle, I remember wondering if they could charge like their perissodactyl relative the rhinoceros.

 

An adult tapir weighs about 500 pounds (227 kg).

 

Baird’s Tapir, front hoof

Tapirs have a very thick skin which aids them when the wild cats pounce on them. Their tough skin can retract, rejecting the cat claws. And if a cat still insists on hanging on, the tapir will violently run through the jungle slamming the cat against a tree.

 

But that night there was no slamming or charging. Mosquitoes were biting, moths and bats were swooping, but the tapirs just meandered along…no hurries, no worries.

 

They walked a full circle around us, first crossing the road in front of the truck, eating leaves on our right, then crossing the road in back, and eating the leaves on our left. Soon after that, they vanished into the forest.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Baird’s Tapirs, eating

 

Thirsty Butterflies

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

We had been birding the Belizean tropical jungle for days, when a new phenomenon greeted us one dawn morning: clouds of butterflies congregating around the ground.

 

Up until then, we had been seeing that same species, the Dark Kite-swallowtail butterfly, flying around all week. One or two, here and there, on flowers–like usual.

 

But this day they were in clumps of 40 and 50, always on the earth.

 

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize

 

Rainforest

There were hundreds, and as we headed down the road to our destination–to watch toucans feeding–we watched them flutter all around, quite magical.

 

They were all on the road and the dirt, and as our truck trundled by I was nervous for their safety. They could easily be run over.

 

I asked the guide, “Why are all the butterflies around this morning? And in such big groups?” It was 6 a.m., no one was especially gregarious yet.

 

He explained that due to the rain we’d had the night before, the ground was moist, and the butterflies were drinking the water.

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Hours after we’d watched the toucans, we came upon the local village’s small airport hangar, and found a drainpipe surrounded by the swallowtail butterflies. It’s hard to make out, but that dark smudge in the bottom right of this photo, right of the drainpipe, is all butterflies…at least a hundred. They were having a drinking party.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize

 

Every butterfly has a proboscis and a pair of antennae. The proboscis is a mouth part, used for sucking. It is a long tube (technically, two tubes) with muscles; part of the digestive system. We don’t always see a butterfly’s proboscis because it can be coiled-up, out of sight.

 

Their antennae, generally club-shaped, have a different function: as receptors, and for balancing.

Butterfly anatomy

from enchantedlearning.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

That day, each individual was using its proboscis to suck water from the ground.

 

The butterfly uses the proboscis not only for sucking water, but also for sucking nectar and sometimes, for extracting minerals. If you’ve ever witnessed a butterfly landing on a person’s skin, the insect is seeking the mineral salt in human sweat.

 

It was windy and the gusts were blowing their long-tailed wings, but each individual steadily continued to drink the rainwater, undeterred.

 

Everyday in the rainforest it was very hot and humid and we were always hot and thirsty…but who would’ve guessed that the butterflies were thirsty?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize